Ed Davey interview: ‘I made my priority very clear and it is to beat Conservative MPs’
Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey. Photography by Baldo Sciacca
As both leader of the Liberal Democrats and a carer to his son, Ed Davey has a lot on his plate. But, he tells Tali Fraser, he’s ready for a general election any time. Photography by Baldo Sciacca.
"Totally inadequate.” That was Ed Davey’s frank assessment of Liz Truss’s answer to the question he posed at her final Prime Minister’s Questions earlier this month. It turned out her own party felt the same way about her leadership – and two days later, Truss was out of No 10. But for the Liberal Democrat leader, the former prime minister’s sub-par response to his query about raising the carer’s allowance in line with inflation was even more alarming than it was for the fractious Conservative MPs sitting behind her.
“I wanted to bring it back to ordinary people and what that means,” he says now, “but the government doesn’t understand what’s happening”.
Davey’s question went to the heart of not just his political life but his personal one too. Leader since August 2020, the 56-year-old has been a carer throughout his life: first for his mother, then his grandmother and now his son.
“Carers have no voice, they are often forgotten about, but they are such an important part of our society and our economy,” he says.
Aged 12, Davey and his two older brothers began caring for his mother, Nina, after she was diagnosed with bone cancer. His father, John, had died eight years earlier of Hodgkin’s disease.
“It meant that we grew up more quickly; we were a little bit isolated in school because we were focusing on our mum; we weren’t really going out to lots of parties; we withdrew from sports a bit, and, yes, it wasn’t easy.”
His mother was ill for three years before she died, aged 44, when Davey was 15-years-old. At school in Nottingham he got no support. Still clearly stunned to this day, eyes wide, he tells how: “The head teacher stopped me one day and said: ‘Davey, we haven’t had orphans before’. I hadn’t thought of myself as orphaned.”
After Davey’s mother passed away, he lived first with his older brother, then his middle brother and then his grandparents. But two years later, his grandfather died suddenly. It meant that he was the one focused on looking after his grandmother when she got ill later in life.
“We had a very close relationship. When my nana was ill I tried to find her sheltered accommodation, then I moved her closer to me, but by that time she was so frail she had to go into a care home.” A year after he got married to his wife Emily, his grandmother died; “at least,” he says, “my wife got to meet her”.
The head teacher stopped me one day and said: ‘Davey, we haven’t had orphans before’.
Davey and Emily met through the Liberal Democrats. “We were in a housing policy working group together.” She is a local councillor. They have two children together, John, who turns 15 next month, and Ellie, eight. The Liberal Democrat leader shares caring responsibilities for their son who suffers from an undiagnosed neurological condition which means he cannot walk or talk.
“We are sort of in the dark on John’s condition but we do everything we possibly can,” he says. “Initially when he was quite young, we didn’t have a brilliant experience with the health service.” They ended up going to the Petö Institute in Budapest. “We did a lot of work with them and my amazing wife would record in a book everything that we were doing. We would do four hours of work a day with John, a bit like a boot camp, and she would write out meticulously every single exercise and then we would go home and she would recreate this exercise programme.”
They did this at home for six hours a day until their son was five-years-old and Emily eventually managed to teach John how to crawl, but Davey admits that life at home is still “quite full on”. He adds: “Thanks to our family we are able to get in some care support. We can’t do it all by ourselves.”
There has recently been discussion about middle class benefit claimants, especially when it comes to carers benefits. Has the Liberal Democrat leader had to turn to the welfare state? No, he says: “We are just quite fortunate. To be frank with you, I am on an MPs salary and we get support from our family. So I’m fine. But I’m extremely worried because I know so many other people aren’t as fortunate and I know the impact caring responsibilities have on your life.
“We are fortunate to be able to get help. People who aren’t: how do they cope?”
The MP for Kingston and Surbiton describes the Truss administration as the “worst government we have seen in modern times” – and is unimpressed with her replacement. He says the Conservatives “look out of touch and like they are taking their own voters for granted”. Davey claims that the delayed Budget proves that Rishi Sunak is “not in a strong enough position to say what he wants to do”, adding that the uncertainty “leaves vulnerable people not knowing where they stand”.
He describes himself as “gobsmacked” that Suella Braverman has been appointed Home Secretary after being sacked from the role over a security breach, and the Liberal Democrats have called for an inquiry into the matter. He claims: “In Whitehall, and this is third hand, she is known as ‘Leaky Sue’. That the Home Secretary is responsible for MI5 and has that nickname is extremely serious.”
With the cost of living crisis biting, Davey, who was energy and climate change secretary during the Coalition government, is scathing about the government’s response to soaring energy prices. “For all the Tories’ talk of nuclear they have not done anything; they literally have not done anything! It is an utter, utter disgrace,” he says. “They can name their time and place, I will take any Tory apart on energy.”
Davey claims to have been the last person in government to sign off on a nuclear power station. Now, he says, whether it be nuclear, renewables or wind, “the Conservatives have failed to take forward at pace what the Liberal Democrats achieved.
They can name their time and place, I will take any Tory apart on energy
The current political picture spurs on the Liberal Democrat leader’s call for a general election. “On the steps of Downing Street, Rishi Sunak said he wanted the people to trust him but he won’t trust the British people.” Davey describes himself as “very optimistic” about his party’s chances should an election be called early, his positivity “driven by our successes over the last few months”.
He says: “Some people were talking about the Chesham and Amersham by-election [in June 2021] as a flash in the pan but I talked about the blue wall because I was a bit more confident. Then we won North Shropshire [in December] and then Tiverton and Honiton in [June].”
That may well be true, but by-election success is not enough to win the keys to No 10. So, would he take his party into another coalition? He refuses to be drawn, insisting the Liberal Democrats will be “centre of place in the electoral battle ahead”. He flags “blue wall” seats as those in the south west, outer London and Greater Manchester, where he says the Lib Dems are the only party that can beat the Conservatives. Here, he says lifelong Tories are already switching to them. Donors are following, too. In the last week of Truss’s leadership, he says, “we had one of the best weeks we have had for a long time”.
Davey adds: “We are fighting to beat Tory MPs. When I became leader, I made it very clear what my priority was: to beat Conservative MPs. And I’m going to be laser focused all the way up till 10pm on polling day in order to do that, so we can be extremely influential in the next Parliament. I just don’t think we will get rid of the Tories unless we achieve that goal, so I’m not going to be distracted.”
There is a lot of talk about an electoral battle with the governing party but not much about the opposition. Does that mean he is considering a deal with Labour leader Keir Starmer? “Absolutely not,” he says, “the truth of it is that where we are in second place is where there are currently Tory MPs; it is simple mental arithmetic”.
“The fundamental issue”, he says, “is about the Conservative Party”. Davey adds: “They’ve run out of ideas, and they’re just trashing our economy.” What would the Liberal Democrats do differently? “In or out of government we will say the same thing and that is, first of all, we’ve got to turn the economic mess around. People are really hurting out there. People in my constituency talk about the rise in their mortgage payments already. They are absolutely scared of what will happen,” he says.
Davey claims there is an unprecedented level of economic anxiety “not just from people on low incomes”. Is his team of Liberal Democrat MPs equipped to deal with that? “We are working well together. We are united,” Davey says. He recognises that many of them are fresh faced and new to Parliament, so it is essential to make sure they are supported and trained up. But he feels confident, having seemingly steadied the ship. The party had a high leadership turnover; when Davey was elected he became the fourth leader in five years – not counting stand-ins. The last general election left them with 11 MPs, with then- leader Jo Swinson among those who lost their seat.
The parliamentary party has swelled to 14 with recent by-election successes, however Davey says: “By-election successes were basically the proof of concept for all the work we have been doing. For our confidence it has been a game changer. The changes we made were all about campaigning, what we do to reach the media, which we always struggle with but we try our best.
“It is still a work in progress but compared to what it was two years ago there has been a dramatic change.”
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.